Image credit: Brodie Van Wagenen (Marc Levine/New York Mets)
Brodie Van Wagenen sat in the stands at Sunken Diamond on that warm and windy May night, surveying the situation before him.
He should have been on the field with his Stanford teammates in that 1996 NCAA Regional, but a shoulder injury effectively ended his career. Unable to play and thus not on the Cardinal’s postseason roster, he was forced to watch as a fan.
As the ninth inning began with Stanford trailing Cal State Northridge 4-1 in an elimination game, Van Wagenen looked over the crowd and did not like what he saw.
So, he sprang into action.
Van Wagenen rose from his seat, grabbed a towel and climbed on top of the Stanford dugout. He began yelling and screaming, waving his towel, hooting and hollering and doing everything in his power to get the home crowd riled up.
Even at 22, Van Wagenen was not one for laissez faire. He was going to try to make something happen.
“If you’ve ever been out to watch a game at Stanford, you get a lot of golf clappers. It’s not exactly the environment you get down at Florida State for an ACC game,” Van Wagenen said. “The crowd was a little idle. So I felt like ‘you know what? This is going to be the last time that any of us were going to be part of a college baseball game,’ so I decided to try and leave it all on the table and use my pom poms and cheerleading skills to try and inspire victory for the rest of the team.”
It didn’t work—Stanford lost 4-3 to be eliminated from the postseason—but the impression was made.
“I’ll never forget seeing Brodie on top of the dugout, that in itself was crazy,” said Brian Dallimore, a Stanford infielder and four-year teammate of Van Wagenen’s. “He had a towel and it looked like we were in a basketball arena or football stadium. The whole place was taking his lead and following him, waving their towels. It was pretty cool because when you’ve spent four years there, you’ve never seen anything remotely close to that ever happening. And that was all his lead.”
When the Mets announced the 44-year-old Van Wagenen as their general manager last October, it was a hire met with skepticism at best and derision at worst.
Van Wagenen had climbed to the top of his profession as an agent as the co-head of baseball at Creative Artists Agency. With that he had earned a place as a respected voice within the game.
But now he was moving to the other side—management—and taking over one of MLB’s most prominent organizations despite zero front-office experience. On top of it, he and CAA had represented numerous Mets players, including Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes, a glaring potential conflict of interest.
Very quickly, Van Wagenen shifted the conversation from his qualifications to his actions.
On Dec. 3, he acquired Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz from the Mariners in exchange for a five-player package fronted by the Mets first-round pick last year, outfielder Jarred Kelenic. Two weeks later he brought Jeurys Familia back to New York as a free agent and signed All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos. He made consecutive trades on Jan. 5-6, dealing six prospects to add infielder J.D. Davis and outfielder Keon Broxton to the Mets bench. On Jan. 16, he signed All-Star infielder Jed Lowrie despite the fact the Mets appeared to have already had a logjam in the infield.
In an offseason where everything else in baseball moved at a glacial pace, Van Wagenen was dynamic. He traded and signed and re-shaped the Mets roster, to the point it’s now worthy of contention in the National League East.
He spent a reported $191 million to do so, and put his neck on the line for harsh criticism is the splurge falters.
But that’s the thing about Van Wagenen. Sitting still has never been an option.
That was true in the stands that spring evening at Stanford. And it’s true now as the general manager of the New York Mets.
“I’m more of a doer than a watcher,” Van Wagenen said. “It’s not rooted in restlessness. It’s just rooted in focus.”
From the moment Van Wagenen arrived as a freshman at Crespi High School, Craig Sherwood knew he was dealing with someone different.
The son of an ex-professional golfer, Van Wagenen had plenty of athletic talent. But didn’t necessarily separate him at Crespi, an prep athletic powerhouse north of Los Angeles.
What separated Van Wagenen was something deeper, personality traits evident even at 14 years old.
“He was not tentative,” said Sherwood, a longtime Crespi assistant who now coaches at Burroughs High in Burbank, Calif. “He had a confidence to his game. He wanted the ball hit to him and he wanted to be the guy that made the play.”
Combined with his natural power, speed and arm strength, that confident, aggressive mindset made Van Wagenen one of the rare players to play varsity all four years at Crespi. Stanford came calling shortly after.
A key part part of a decorated recruiting class led by Gatorade National High School Player of the Year A.J. Hinch—now the Astros manager—Van Wagenen started as both a freshman and sophomore in right field for the Cardinal. He hit just .249 with three home runs in those two seasons, but the fact he was starting as an underclassman was a testament to his ability.
Beyond that, he assumed a leadership mantle at a young age.
“He and A.J., they were the leaders,” longtime Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. “They’re very similar. They’re very similar in their DNA. They really kind of have tremendous people skills and kind of can relate to anybody.”
Van Wagenen mainly led by example. He was confident and charismatic, but also had some fight in him.
On May 15, 1994, the final day of the regular season Van Wagenen’s sophomore year, Stanford played at Arizona State in a winner-take-all game for the Pac-10 South title.
The game was tied 2-2 with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning when ASU reliever Noah Peery struck out Stanford first baseman Dusty Allen. Rather than return to the dugout, Peery approached the plate, said something to Allen and a brawl ensued.
Dallimore was on third base when the fisticuffs started. He began to approach the brawl when something in his periphery caught his attention.
“I turn and I look over my shoulder and I see something going on around shortstop, and it’s Brodie on the ground with three guys from Arizona State and they’re just scrapping like no other,” Dallimore said. “All by himself out there with three guys on the ground…. I’ll never forget looking out there and Brodie doing his best hanging on with three guys, scrapping with three guys on the ground.”
When his junior year began, Van Wagenen expected to be an integral part of the club. A multi-year starter who had already established himself as a tenacious team leader, Van Wagenen got off to the best start of his career that spring.
Then, fate intervened. In a game against Southern California in early March, Van Wagenen got caught out in front on a changeup from Trojans lefthander (and future Cardinals scouting director) Randy Flores. On the swing, his left shoulder dislocated. Van Wagenen popped it back into place and tried to stay in the game. In his next at-bat, his shoulder dislocated again.
The damage was extensive. Van Wagenen’s shoulder capsule and labrum were both torn and his biceps tendon had ripped away from the bone. He had season-ending surgery, and the ensuing rehab was largely unsuccessful.
He tried to come back as a senior, but appeared in only seven games before it became clear the damage was too great for him to continue playing.
“It came totally out of nowhere,” Van Wagenen said. “I think for my frame I bulked up pretty significantly, probably more so than my frame could handle.”
To this day, Van Wagenen still does not have full range of motion in that left shoulder.
His dream of playing professionally was done, and Van Wagenen openly admits he was a bit lost after the injury—“Once the injury happened there was certainly a few months of depression before realizing that ‘OK, things happen for a reason.’”—but sitting around doing nothing was not his style.
Even after he aborted his comeback attempt he remained with the team as a senior, helping any way he could. Whether that meant mentoring young players, keeping the clubhouse running smooth or standing on top of a dugout to try and engineer a rally, he found every different way to take action for the benefit of his team.
“To be able to be still part of the team, and be relevant to the team, the respect that he had from the younger players and his teammates, that speaks volumes about the type of person you are,” Marquess said. “What made him a good player was how competitive he was. And to be a great competitor and to not be able to play and know your dream of not playing baseball is not going to happen, it really shows a person’s true character.”
When the phone call came from Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon last summer, the intention of all parties involved was that it would be just to talk.
Van Wagenen was happy as the co-head of baseball at CAA. In his mind, he was going to be an agent the rest of his career.
“This opportunity kind of happened really organically,” Van Wagenen said. “As the summer went on after (Mets general manager) Sandy (Alderson) had taken his leave, Jeff was seeking input from a lot of different people in the industry about the organization. What the strengths were, what the weaknesses were, what was needed in a new GM, and I was one of the people that he used as a sounding board. And so I shared a bunch of ideas and thoughts and had even given him some names I thought would be good candidates.”
That conversation turned into more conversations. Eventually, it evolved to something greater.
“By the end of the season he mentioned he was really looking for an outside-the-box candidate and was open to maybe doing some things that were beyond the norm,” Van Wagenen said. “I said ‘OK, well what kind of outside the box candidates are you thinking about?’ and then it was over that conversation that, sort of for both of us, the light-bulb went on and said ‘Maybe I’m the outside the box candidate that could be a fit.’”
Van Wagenen weighed an offer to be considered for the job for a few days and eventually accepted. During interviews, he pitched the Mets on being active in the direction of competitiveness rather than take a wait-and-see approach or embrace a rebuild.
As much as what he said, it was how he presented it that made him the pick.
“I think his excitement for the job and his sense of teamwork and collaboration with the entire staff was big,” Wilpon said. “His energy really comes out all the time and I think we were lacking that a little bit in the front office (and) with all the baseball department….I think it was a little bit that we’d been lacking that maybe. A little bit of swagger and a little bit of confidence was something that I thought we could use.”
Becoming a general manager was never on his list of Van Wagenen’s career goals. He didn’t see moving into management as his way “in” to Major League Baseball, because he already felt on the inside as an agent.
There was something more to this. A call to action Van Wagenen felt he couldn’t turn down, beyond just the allure of becoming a general manager.
“This opportunity kind of came to me and I realized this was a pretty unique moment in my life, in Mets history, in this city, and with a platform to try an impact the game at sort of a unique moment in our history,” Van Wagenen said. “I’ve been outspoken in the past on the labor side. I feel like there was the potential that maybe I can be a bridge between management and labor and potentially help an organization achieve its goals. And if I could do it with a little bit of a fresh perspective, that was something I couldn’t pass up.”
It’s been four months since Van Wagenen was introduced as the Mets GM. It feels longer because of the size of stamp he’s already made on the organization. There is inherent risk in an incoming general manager trying to reshape a roster so quickly. That’s true for even a seasoned baseball executive, let alone a former agent in his first front-office role in any capacity.
But Van Wagenen doesn’t see it that way. For him, the goals of his new job are similar to the goals at his old one, a job he was plenty experienced in.
“I think the adjustment has been seamless on one hand in terms of the objectives,” he said. “As an agent the objective is to identify the best talent in the world. It’s then to develop the best talent in the world to becoming big leaguers. And then it’s helping those big leaguers reach sustainable major league success so that talent can be monetized.
“I say it’s seamless because my job now is to identify and acquire the best talent in the world, develop that best talent, and convert them into long-term big league contributors. And so I think the job is really the same.”
The coming months will tell just how seamless the transition really was. Once actual games begin, only then can Van Wagenen truly be evaluated as a general manager.
But for now, with his monumental flurry of activity, Van Wagenen has let the baseball world know who he is.
His old teammates at Stanford knew. His coaches knew. Now New York knows.
He’s charismatic and polished and unafraid. Above all, he’s a man of action.
“Brodie is going to be aggressive,” Dallimore said. “He’s going to do what he believes is right and really not care a whole lot of people’s opinions that he doesn’t care about. Certainly there are people’s opinions that he’ll care about and those are people most likely very closely associated to what he’s doing. Outside of that, he’s going to be aggressive, he’s going to go, he’s going to challenge you and say ‘Hey listen, you don’t like it, well, prove me wrong.’ He’s going to stand his ground. There’s some conviction there in that, and that’s motivating to people around him.”