25 For 25: Don Fehr, Peter Gammons, Pat Gillick, Bo Jackson, Bill James
It would be impossible to properly
catalog all the people who have played a part in the evolution of
baseball and Baseball America over the past 25 years. From the bullpen
catcher for a Rookie-level team to the men who have served as
commissioner of baseball, thousands of people have helped bring the
industry to where it is today.In
celebration of our 25 years in the game, we're focusing on the 25 most
significant of those people in our world. As a reflection of our
coverage of the game wherever it's played, you'll see much more than
just major league figures in the following pages. So while many of the
people you'll read about are quite familiar to you, some probably won't
be. We're happy to introduce or reacquaint you with them. After all,
that's what Baseball America is all about.
The hardest thing in sports is to follow a legend.
When Marvin Miller stepped down as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association after the 1981 labor negotiations, Don Fehr was given the nearly impossible task of taking over the union's leadership role before the next round of labor negotiations. He was replacing the man who had essentially built the union from nothing and turned it into the strongest sports union around.
In many ways, it was an impossible task. But Fehr has survived and thrived. Ever since he took over as the union's executive director in 1983, he has managed to continue the momentum that the union developed under Miller. The average salary of a major leaguer has gone from $185,000 in 1981 to $2.47 million last year. And maybe most importantly, the playing field of negotiations has changed. Where owners even in the 1980s tried to get back the pre-free agency era, now the new reality of baseball is accepted.
But it's not a negotiation or bargaining point that Fehr views as the highlight of his 20 years leading the union. Instead, he's most proud of the union's cohesiveness.
"That is the primary job I have--educating the players and helping to forge a common consensus," Fehr said. "The primary task you have to fulfill is to make sure the players are knowledgeable and are informed and are fully supportive. You have to maintain a consensus among the players no matter what the issues are when they arise."
Fehr has succeeded in doing that, to the point where battles with ownership are now essentially over how to divide an ever-growing revenue pie.
"I've had to maintain the unity in a significantly different environment. The industry is 10 times bigger than it was at the time when Marvin left," Fehr said. "The association is still cohesive, and still is generally regarded favorably."
Owners and players were able to reach a deal in 2002 on a new collective bargaining agreement without a labor stoppage--the first time that had happened in more than two decades--and that deal expires after the season. If a new deal can be reached without a stoppage, baseball will have enjoyed labor peace for 15 years or more, something that hasn't been true in baseball since the days of the reserve clause.
"It's clearly better than it was in the 1980s," Fehr said. "That was a pretty ugly period of labor relations. Nowadays, 1995 is a couple of generations of players ago. We've had, I don't want to say tranquility, since then, but we've been able to get an agreement without a stoppage."
To put Peter Gammons' contributions to baseball journalism into context, you need to find a parallel that carries some weight. Colleague Jayson Stark had a good one.
"What Alexander Graham Bell was to the telephone, Peter is to modern coverage of baseball," Stark said.
Gammons didn't quite invent the job of baseball writer, but he did revolutionize it.
In 36 years with the Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated and ESPN (since 1990), Gammons pioneered a host of innovations. He essentially invented the weekend notes package in his Sunday columns for the Globe. As Stark points out, that format is now used in just about every major sport in every major market. He also pioneered the daily notebook as part of beat coverage and popularized the reporting of trade rumors, which can now be seen in the form of "Rumor Central" features on most major sports Websites.
Gammons changed the way game stories were written by incorporating more feature elements, and he related to his readers by using music and pop culture references that previously had no place on a sports page.
"Just about every aspect of the way we follow baseball now, he did first," Stark said.
Even the way we follow baseball on other media. Gammons was one of the first print journalists to make the foray into television, and he has long been a fixture on TV sets across America, plugging viewers into the grapevine and chatter inside the industry on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" and "SportsCenter."
He paved the way for countless writers to follow his path to TV, because Gammons made television executives (like ESPN's John Walsh) aware of the power of information.
"John Walsh . . . had the crack-brained idea to bring a sportswriter into television because, as one of the business' most creative visionaries, he understood that information is king," Gammons said in his speech when he joined the writer's wing of the Hall of Fame last summer.
But Gammons is a writer at heart, even though television made him a household face. He still writes regular columns for ESPN.com, making the Internet another frontier where he pioneered. He made it acceptable for the top writers to jump from newspapers and magazines to the Web, where their readership could increase exponentially.
"I am not here as a television personality, but as an ink-stained wretch," Gammons said in Cooperstown.
Anyone who has ever worked with or met Gammons also speaks in glowing terms about his professionalism and generosity. He is well known for sharing his time and expertise with young reporters, and Stark is just one of the countless writers who received encouragement from Gammons during their careers. His kindness and decency are as much a part of his legacy as the way he pioneered modern sports journalism.
Review the list of baseball's general managers when Baseball America debuted in 1981, and it reads like a baseball history book. Most of the men in GM jobs then have long since moved on, and many have been out of baseball for years.
And then there is Pat Gillick. A man who started his professional baseball career as a lefthander in the Orioles system in 1958, he's still going strong in his fourth stop as a GM, this time with the Phillies.
Perhaps most significant of all, however, is his track record of success no matter where he has been.
Gillick got his first GM job as leader of the expansion Blue Jays in 1976, when he was 38. He stayed in Toronto through the strike season of 1994--in fact, he still lives there--and won four division titles and back-to-back World Series in 1992 and '93. After a year off, he took over the Orioles and led the team to two playoff berths in three seasons before stepping down at the end of his contract.
After another year off, he moved on to the Mariners and led the most successful period in that franchise's history, with two playoff berths and an American League-record 116 wins in 2001. In his four years in Seattle, the Mariners had the best overall record in baseball.
Gillick took a couple of more years off before coming to the Phillies over the winter, and he sounds just as enthusiastic about trying to lead another organization to the playoffs.
Gillick has continued to thrive by adapting his approach to team-building as the game has evolved over the last three decades. He was trained on the importance of scouting and player development, and while he still thinks those areas are essential, he knows it's not that simple to build a winning team any longer.
"When I first got into this thing it was the first year of free agency," he said. "Drafting and developing players is important, but you have to rely on other avenues now as well."
Gillick cites numerous other examples of how the mechanics of team building have changed: arbitration, rapidly rising salaries, the increased importance of statistical analysis. The only one he worries about is the growing importance of foreign players--only because for him it shows that fewer American youngsters are playing baseball.
"The North American talent pool has shrunk, though globally the entire pool has probably expanded," he said. "And in 10 years, I think the makeup of clubs will be even more international."
However clubs are made up, though, you can bet that Gillick will find a way to create a winning formula.
At Baseball America, we are always looking for the best tools. They are the essence of a player, the simplest way of breaking down their abilities on the field. We even have an issue devoted to them each year. And there has been no player with a better package of tools than Bo Jackson.
"I have seen a lot of great ones in my time," said Art Stewart, who was the scouting director when the Royals drafted Jackson. "I can't recall anyone who had greater tools than him."
Jackson had it all: the power of Mantle, the speed of Mays and the arm of Clemente. But he also had a five-year, $7.5 million contract offer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1986 NFL draft. The fact that he began his career as a baseball player was shocking enough, but the Royals knew him better then anyone.
Royals area scout Ken Gonzales always stayed at the same Ramada Inn in Bessemer, Ala., where Jackson's mother worked. They became friends and would always get together for coffee when he was in town. He knew Bo was unsignable as a high school senior and as a college junior because he had promised his mother he would be the first in his family to get a college degree.
Jackson earned his fame on the football field and won the 1985 Heisman Trophy at Auburn, but he also starred for the Tigers on the diamond. He lost his baseball eligibility his senior year when Tampa Bay flew him in on a private jet to wine him and dine him.
This embittered Jackson toward the Buccaneers and opened the door for him to play baseball. When general manager John Schuerholz got a call from his agent the day of the draft saying, "If Bo plays baseball, he wants to play for the Royals," they decided to take a chance.
"Ownership or John never told me when to take him because it was still a risk," Stewart said. "To this day I can't tell you why, but I said to myself, a fourth-round pick is worth it. If Bo doesn't sign, the franchise is not going to fold."
Gonzales' groundwork paid off and Jackson signed a couple of weeks after the draft, and he was in the big leagues that September. His production over his first three big league seasons was not exceptional, but that is not what people remember. They remember the home run he hit to lead off the 1989 All-Star Game, him running up the wall in center field or his 300-foot lasers to nail a runner trying to score. After the 1987 season, he decided to play professional football as a "hobby" to become the world's most famous two-sport athlete.
By 1990, he was coming into his own as a baseball player, hitting .278-28-78, but he hurt his hip in a Raiders playoff game the next January and was never the same, though his career continued through 1994.
"Without a doubt to me he is the greatest athlete of the 20th century," Stewart said. "Because of all the football he played, he really learned to play baseball in the major leagues. That is how exceptional of a talent he was."
Bruce Springsteen had a wonderful line many years ago about Bob Dylan. He said, "Dylan freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body."
Well, Bill James freed our minds.
Until this husky Kansan began publishing his annual "Baseball Abstract" series--from his home from 1977-81 before graduating to Ballantine bestseller from 1982-88--baseball books were typically either poems or paeans, giving dutiful Salutes to time-honored baseball wisdom. But with articles supported by hard data, cutting-edge statistical analysis and sparkling humor, James ripped baseball writing from its vapid, deferential moorings and became the most influential baseball writer of the 20th century.
James did not create the field of baseball statistical analysis, but his work made it a legitimate, popular phenomenon. Many of his early ideas have been bronzed into what we now call common sense: That team skill can be assessed far better by runs scored and allowed than by won-lost record; that park dimensions have tremendous (and measurable) impact on hitters and pitchers; that minor league statistics do indeed say a lot about prospects; that outs are far more valuable than bases; and that the prime for major league players comes at ages 25-29, not 28-32. Pooh-poohing these theories as obvious now is like scoffing that Galileo just dropped stuff from a tower.
Like many iconoclasts before him, James's greatest influence came considerably after his most prominent work, when the generation of readers who truly embraced his ideas grew up to become baseball's new decision-makers. Most of today's under-35 generation of non-playing executives, the ever-ballyhooed group including Theo Epstein of the Red Sox and many others, were weaned on James's theories and show-me-the-data approach. Even more so, most young baseball journalists can't help to have been influenced, either joyfully or subconsciously, by James and the culture he fostered.
James' work went beyond merely writing. He was a founder of the organization that became STATS Inc. Now a consultant for the Red Sox, James is remembered more as the patron saint of the statistics movement than a current practitioner. He writes only selected articles now, but the spirit of those he already wrote will probably echo forever.
"When you read Bill James, you notice there is a more abstract truth out there," Epstein said. "Baseball is more than just an ability to get to the ball in the hole and throw a guy out. There is a bigger puzzle."