It was after the Christian Vázquez single that made it 4-1 in the bottom of the sixth inning of Game 6 of this year’s World Series that it all started coming back.
My thoughts wandered to the afternoon of Oct. 26, 2002, which marked the first time Dusty Baker hadn’t “won a World Series” as a manager, when he took the Giants into Game 6 of that World Series needing just one more victory to be world champions. Twenty years and 10 days before that Vázquez single, in the sixth inning of that Game 6, Barry Bonds helped his manager along, hitting a prodigious home run into the right-field upper deck in Anaheim Stadium off rookie phenom Francisco Rodríguez. Understand, Bonds had hit a similar shot off Troy Percival in Game 1; in our postgame show, we showed video of Bonds making a meaningless out against Rodríguez, and I said, “The kid’s tough when you haven’t faced him,” prompting Bonds the next day to correct me and say “if he throws me that again I’ll hit it further than the one off Percival.” Our ESPN set was at the top of the left-field stands, and as Bonds took his defensive position for the next inning, he waved up to get my attention and pointed to where the home run had gone.
Which all seemed OK. The game, the series, seemingly had an inevitable conclusion, and as Harold Reynolds, Karl Ravech and I laughed about it, we noticed that there was a sudden and striking change in the wind. For the first five-and-a-half innings, it had been blowing in from right field. Suddenly, it was blowing out to right field. In the bottom of the seventh, with the Giants eight outs from their first world championship in the Bay Area and Russ Ortiz breezing through the Angels’ lineup, Troy Glaus and Brad Fullmer hit one-out singles. Baker came out to the mound and signaled for Félix Rodríguez out of the bullpen to pitch to Scott Spiezio.
Spiezio lofted a fly ball to dead right field. Giants right fielder Reggie Sanders, an excellent defender, hadn’t realized the change in the wind, and he didn’t get back to the low wall in time to be able to make a play. Homer. Giants 5, Angels 3, and eight outs away became five outs to the end, because Darin Erstad homered and Glaus doubled in two more runs in the bottom of the eighth and Percival closed it with a 1-2-3 ninth that led to a John Lackey win in Game 7 and the only championship in Angels history.
Twenty years and 10 days later, on a Saturday night in Houston, those 2002 memories faded somewhat, no longer representing the first time Dusty Baker didn’t accomplish something, no longer standing as such a painful reminder of being tantalizingly close despite all the work he had done to build that team, and other teams, into cohesive units.
Just as the 2002 series was a fascinating watch, this 2022 series was a match of stars and cultures. Bryce Harper has become a cross between Frank Robinson and George Brett, embodying the fiery, fearless superstar leader, with support from the man who makes it all work in Kyle Schwarber. And there was the Dusty Culture that for three seasons allowed the Astros to play without regret around their necks.
Organizations build culture in different ways, and from different sources. Baker’s 2002 Giants had a culture all their own, one that came down from their manager, but one also that was unavoidably shaped by having one of the most productive players of all time at his statistical peak, and as a constant center of attention. Baker’s 2022 Astros were also a unique team in terms of culture, in that they existed against the background of their sign-stealing scandal and its continued fallout. Yet Baker succeeded in moving the narrative past that incident, and making it about the players on the field.
A strong team culture is paramount in forging a successful club, but it isn’t always the manager who creates it — players, GMs, coaches and others play their part, and on some teams are the dominant forces. But on these Astros? There’s no question where this team’s culture came from.
Starting from the top
Dusty Baker is a baseball culture unto himself. He often talks of what he learned from teammates, from Henry Aaron, one of the sport’s greatest persons, from Reggie Smith; in the ugliest days of the racially torn Boston school busing crisis, Smith and other prominent athletes (Bobby Orr, Sam and K.C. Jones), without any publicity, went to schools to urge the kids to keep studying and learning, and in the last six years he has run the Reggie Smith Academy for academics and athletics to aid underserved youth in Los Angeles with the motto that “every student is deserving of opportunity.” Dusty is on the board of the academy.
The day after the Astros win, Nov. 6, Tom Verducci wrote of Baker’s legendary sense and understanding of body language. In the month after the 2002 series, the Giants did not pick up Baker’s contract option, and before he was hired by the Cubs, my then-employer, ESPN.com, ran a story about his alleged tax issues. When I arrived at Cubs camp for spring training in 2003, he took me to his office, closed the door and told me a media person in San Francisco told him that because I had known Giants owner Peter Magowan for more than 40 years, I leaked the story. I had not, and when I reacted by grabbing the chair, Dusty said, “I know right away the person lied. Relax. I had to ask. Your reaction told me all I needed to know.”
That’s just who he is. When his son Darren was playing in the Cape Cod League in 2019, Dusty spent weeks in the area, and after he had to leave, people in parks around the league recounted tales of Dusty Baker watching his son while signing for and talking to everyone who approached him. As for Darren, when MLB cut the 2020 draft to five rounds, he told clubs he was returning to the University of California, graduated, was a finalist for the national CLASS award for “excellence in community, classroom, character and competition,” then was selected by the Nationals in the 2021 draft and this past summer hit .290 in High-A Harrisburg, in between a couple of fishing days with his father.
The first day of Baker’s managerial time with the Astros was the first full day of spring training in 2020. The astounding reporting on sign stealing by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drelich in The Athletic had broken the previous Nov. 12, and that was the prevailing story of that day; Baker was the right person at the right time, taking his first job since managing the Nats to a 97-65 season and losing 9-8 to the Cubs — with Max Scherzer in relief — in the fifth and deciding game of the 2017 NLDS, then getting fired. There could be no questions that day for the new manager about the scandal, or firings, or the press conference Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman were forced to confront. His focus was on moving forward, on that day’s workout.
Some players invited me into the clubhouse while the workout was in its later stages. They were subdued, clearly remorseful, but when I told Altuve that players, coaches and a number of people in the organization had told me that he did not participate in the sign stealing, he politely declined to discuss it, and asked that I didn’t talk about it on television, or write about it. “It would be a betrayal of my teammates.”
Two years later, he still did not want to be singled out. But while he and Bregman were asked by management to speak to the scandal for all the players and he received the most obscene treatment from beered up louts in Boston and New York, he never pointed to 2017 home/road splits that showed a 200-point OPS difference in favor of the road, where there was nary a banging trash can to be heard.
“He is,” Baker said, “the ultimate teammate.” That from a man who played with Henry Aaron and Reggie Smith.
Also in that Astros clubhouse, often sitting by his locker streaming Sancti Spiritus games from Cuba, was Yulieski Gurriel, from a family Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro calls “baseball royalty.” Lourdes Jr. joined the Blue Jays in 2018 at 24, and in parts of five seasons has a .285 batting average and 117 OPS-plus. This past season, he played a long stretch with a broken hamate bone. “He didn’t tell anyone,” says Shapiro. Yuli’s father, Lourdes Sr., is one of the greatest baseball figures in Cuban history. In 1984, when the U.S. Olympic team inexplicably did not select either Barry Bonds or B.J. Surhoff (the first pick in the 1985 draft), they went to Havana to play in the 1984 Amateur World Series. “He was a great player,” Surhoff says, and it showed in the numbers, with Gurriel posting a .992 OPS in the tournament, compared to Bonds’ .884.
Lourdes Sr. managed all three of his baseball-star sons, including brother Yunieski, with Sancti Spiritus. Now that both Yuli and Lourdes Jr. play in MLB, he calls each son after every one of their games. “Yuli,” says former Astros international scouting director Oz Ocampo, “is a very special person in that clubhouse.” A batting title, a Gold Glove and two World Series rings speak to that. In his 15 seasons for Sancti Spiritus, starting at age 17, his numbers were .337/.421/,582/1.003 with 591 walks and 388 strikeouts. When I first saw Yuli — and Kendrys Morales — they were 15 at a Cuban Academy, and I wrote that if he were in the States when he turned 19, he might be the first player chosen in the draft. Incidentally, Delmon Young was the first pick in the draft the year Yuli turned 19, when he hit .358 with a 1.033 OPS for Sancti Spiritus and his manager-father.
So, there is more to the Astros culture in winning two World Series and two other American League pennants in the last six seasons than banging the cans slowly.
Building it behind the scenes
We have seen how difficult it is to put together a comparable six-season run. There are people calling for Cashman to be fired from the Yankees, for changes in the Dodgers organization. Hey, in Chicago, one can hear that Jed Hoyer might be “in trouble” because the Cubs haven’t “won since 2016.” Wow, a five-year-old kid in Evanston has never seen the Cubs win it all.
“When fans and the media get upset and want changes when their team doesn’t go all the way, they forget how difficult it is to be that one team that wins its final game,” says Toronto president Shapiro. “The postseason often is random.”
Take the Seattle Mariners, whose initial season was 1977, with a game started by The Ancient Mariner Diego Segui, who some thought was 77. In 2001, they won a record 116 games. They have had great, Hall of Fame-level players like Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez. This past season they won 90 games with a captivating young team and knocked the favored Blue Jays out of the Wild Card Series and lost the Division Series to the best team in the sport, the Astros. They also have never played a World Series game. In this century the Red Sox have won four World Series; they’ve also finished last five times. The Giants have won three World Series, and did it in a five-year period. The Cardinals won in 2006 and 2011, before that 1982. The Braves’ 2021 championship followed their others, in 1995, 1957 and 1914.
The Yankees won 99 games in 2022, the Dodgers 111. Each team had serious offensive issues in the postseason. Each team had pitching injury issues. The eight winningest teams in the regular season were the Dodgers, Astros, Braves, Mets, Yankees, Cardinals, Guardians and the Blue Jays. Of those teams, other than Houston, only the Yankees and Guardians won a postseason series. With the financial state of the game, which has rebounded significantly since the onset of COVID-19, we can expect to see more teams leveraging capital and trade assets in the hopes of making the postseason. That’s good for the industry, good for the players, good for the fans who want their teams to compete to their markets’ capabilities. The Brewers are the smallest market in MLB, and they missed the last playoff spot to the Phillies by a game after making the playoffs the previous four seasons. The last six seasons, Milwaukee has won more regular season games than any National League team other than Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum, where the Yankees reside. Now, the Yankees are not just any baseball team. They have 27 world championships. When they take the field on Opening Day against the Giants next March 30, it will be the 50th year the Steinbrenner family has owned them, so if you were born into another family of Yankee fans after October, 1964 — the year David Halberstam chronicled the end of the post-War II Yankee reign that saw them win ten World Series and 15 pennants from 1947 to 1964 — you were used to the early King Georgeisms. He fired Billy Martin and Yogi Berra as managers, called Dave Winfield “Mr. May,” said “Ken Clay spit the bit” and “we’ve seen enough of Tucker Ashford” and termed his own style as “creative discomfort.” But after Bob Watson stepped down as general manager and Cashman took over in 1998 in the midst of winning four World Series in five years with one manager, Joe Torre, the front office parade was over. The Yankees lost the 2001 series, played in the shadow of the events of Sept. 11, in seven games to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and things changed. The 1998-99-2000 Yankees were the last team — period — to win the World Series in consecutive seasons.
When that 2001 series ended, Torre had completed his sixth season as manager, and he did not retire until after 2007, without another pennant. In the ensuing 22 seasons, the Yankees have won it all once, in 2009. George Steinbrenner died on July 13, 2010, in the season following that last World Series win, but he had calmed. When the Red Sox players and families were celebrating on the Yankee Stadium field after the seventh game of the infamous 2004 ALCS, he was staring down from his box and the security chief asked him on his walkie-talkie if he wanted the field cleared. “No,” his voice boomed back, “let them celebrate. They’ve waited a long time for this.”
General managers can create cultures, and beyond ownership, perhaps the greatest constant in the last three decades of Yankee baseball has been Cashman, who has made his mark on decades of Yankee rosters at this point, and survived numerous tabloid-driven mobs to stay at the helm of baseball’s most prominent franchise, receiving votes of confidence from multiple generations of Steinbrenners. In 2008 when the Yankees were in third place and won only 89 games and speculation had begun about Cashman’s security, in the lobby of his favorite Manhattan hotel, George Steinbrenner said, “Everything Brian Cashman does has been in the best interest of the Yankees, not his own interest.” In the 22 seasons of the 21st century, the Yankees have won fewer than 89 games four times. They’ve won 100-plus six times, 95-to-99 six, 90-to-94 four.
“I’ve tried to maintain stability and allow people to do their jobs,” Cashman says. “Anyone who knows me knows I try to check in on any player I think might be available. We’ve signed top-dollar, quality free agents (think Gerrit Cole, Mark Teixeira) and taken on big contracts (Giancarlo Stanton). Considering where we normally pick in the draft, I think Damon Oppenheimer has done a very good job.”
In Oppenheimer’s 17 years as scouting director, the Yankees haven’t had a first-round selection higher than 16; the last three times they were at the top of the draft were 1990-92, when they picked Carl Everett 10th, Brian Taylor first and Derek Jeter sixth. In 2013, Oppenheimer took Aaron Judge with the 32nd pick in the first round, and six years later, with the 30th pick, he took shortstop Anthony Volpe. After watching the Astros and Phillies play a memorable World Series with rookie shortstops, one of whom was the MVP of the series and the ALCS against the Yankees, it’s tempting to think Volpe may be the favorite to be at short next March 30.
When the Yankees were beaten by Houston in the ALCS, one host on MLB Radio said “Cashman did nothing.” Yet in 2022, Cashman acquired Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Harrison Bader, Andrew Benintendi, Frankie Montas, Scott Effross and Lou Trevino. D.J. LeMahieu, Matt Carpenter and Benintendi were hurt, as well as Mike King and Chad Green, and Clay Holmes pitched through ailments. The Astros won 106 games. They had the best pitching in either league. There was nothing random about their victory.
Cashman’s priority this winter is signing Judge. Like Boston’s Chaim Bloom with Xander Bogaerts, neither general manager can move forward until each knows what he has and where their financial starting points may be. Both know that to quickly get a deal done entails giving the agent his price. Middle ground can take until February if enough teams get involved. It is unlikely Cashman will take the tabloids’ directives and sign one of the premium free agent shortstops for their asking price, as he turns to Volpe or Oswald Peraza. There will be a pitching signing, or two. Anthony Rizzo is already back in the fold. They won 99 games. The Dodgers, Astros, Mets and Braves won more. The Yankees won three postseason games, the Dodgers, Braves and Mets won three among them.
The Yankees are always all-in, but other clubs in lesser markets have to pick their spots. Pat Gillick in Toronto and Sandy Alderson in Oakland believed in Alderson’s credo that the “time comes in a contending team’s season when the front office has to show the players that it is trying as hard as it is asking them to play;” Alderson traded for Rickey Henderson at the 1989 trading deadline, Gillick at the 1993 deadline, and each won the ensuing World Series. At different times, Alderson made deadline deals for Harold Baines and Willie McGee. Gillick made impactful deadline deals for Henderson and David Cone, and in off-seasons preceding his 1992 and 1993 championships Gillick signed or traded for Jack Morris, Dave Stewart, Robbie Alomar, Joe Carter and Dave Winfield.
In 2016, the Cubs and Indians were tied in Game 7 in extra innings and Theo Epstein’s work to acquire Ben Zobrist and Aroldis Chapman was validated. In 2015, Royals GM Dayton Moore told his front office “our now has come,” traded for Edinson Volquez and Zobrist and Kansas City had its second championship. As a reminder of the degree of difficulty in winning World Series in small and medium markets: the four 1969 expansion teams were Kansas City, Seattle, Montreal and San Diego. Montreal ended up in Washington, Seattle became Bud Selig’s Milwaukee Brewers and 53 years later the Royals have won two World Series, the Montreal/Washington Expos/Nationals one. The Seattle Pilots did provide us with “Ball Four,” and the spectacle of the Ancient Mariner, Segui, pitching in the first games in the history of both the Pilots and the Mariners.
The 2022 trading deadline provided a glimmering example of how those clubs need to seize their moments. Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto, through drafts and trades and free agent signings like Robbie Ray, had steadily built excitement for the Mariners to the point where their fan base realized they had a chance to end sports’ longest stretch without a postseason appearance. On July 30, with three days left before the trading deadline, he traded four prospects to Cincinnati for the prize of the trade season, the electrifying Luis Castillo. Not only did the Mariners make the playoffs, but they knocked off the Blue Jays before being eliminated by the Astros. DiPoto knew when to trade for or protect young players, and when to trade them away for a rare elite starter like Castillo.
Leading from the front
As we saw in the postseason, individual players can create a team culture around them. Harper is obviously one, from the fire that rages in his competitiveness to his gesture to the “Phillies” on the front of his uniform. Marcus Semien is one of those, which is why Rangers GM Chris Young made him and his ability to put a team’s culture on a solid foundation paramount when Young was assembling his Texas roster last winter. As Cleveland coach Sandy Alomar puts it, “everyone on this team follows what José Ramírez does.” Ask most Blue Jays people, and they point to Matt Chapman as their driving force, or “Chapman and George Springer.” When the 1989 A’s took the field, they played the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” as Henderson headed to left field. In Toronto, they should do the same for Springer and Chapman.
Dayton Moore says that when the Royals were assessing drafts or available players, “we didn’t necessarily look for the best talent, we were looking for the players who gave us the best chance to win, by performance and making teammates better.” Frank Robinson was that guy. So was Hank Aaron. Derek Jeter, because every teammate Jeter had knew he was always there for one reason: to win. In winning three World Series in 10 seasons, veteran Red Sox players point to Dustin Pedroia and Jason Varitek; Bogaerts still recalls his first major-league road trip as a 19-year-old in 2013, when Pedroia sent a tailor to the rookie’s San Francisco hotel room to fit him for two suits, courtesy of Pedey. Chipper Jones was that guy. Robin Yount. Manny Machado has evolved into one. George Brett. Ken Griffey Jr.
Chase Utley defined that kind of person. He got to the park seven or eight hours before first pitch, and worked at things he told teammates were “things that I might be able to do to help us win that game.” It could be studying video of opposing relievers, Or, against pitchers who were poor fielders or sluggish holding runners, practicing bunting or getting a lead.
Buck Showalter asks his players to “wear it.” In other words, accept fault. Dennis Eckersley pitched in the majors for 24 years, and whatever happened, it was never anyone else’s fault. Not in Game 3 of the 1978 Boston Massacre when he pulled the media away from Frank Duffy and said, “Talk to the guy with the ‘L’ next to his name — me.” Or after the Kirk Gibson homer. Or the Robbie Alomar homer in the key game of the 1992 American League playoffs. Pirates players that same year never forgot that Jim Leyland wore it all when they lost the heartbreaking final game of the playoffs to the Braves and Francisco Cabrera’s series-winning single.
The teachers and their pupils
Some have suggested the single most important figure in this Astros stretch has been Brent Strom, whose concepts, teaching and work scouting and developing their young cadre of Latin pitchers is the real foundation of the organization’s current success. Strom went with the Astros scouts to the Dominican, and, for example, insisted on taking a chance on one kid who was already almost 18 and only threw 82-84 MPH — and then Cristian Javier combined on no-hitters against the Yankees and Phillies in June and November.
Coaches matter, and quality organizations find major- and minor-league coaches who love to teach, and care about and respect players. That is precisely what the Cleveland organization has done for more than 30 years. So, of course, have the Cardinals, from the days when Branch Rickey disciple George Kissell was running their development system to today, with Gary LaRocque. In spring training 1990, Kissell was working with Todd Zeile on moving from catcher to third base. Kissell would get Zeile down on his knee in front of a brick wall, then rocket balls with his fungo off the wall, ricocheting at Zeile, requiring quick reactions. Kissell had done the same drills with Torre when he made the switch to third 20 years earlier. Before Torre, it was with Mike Shannon, before him, Ken Boyer. Kissell used to say, “we have to prepare young men for what they need to play in the big leagues.” His motto? “I learn something new every day.” To this day, some of us say, “every day I go to a ballpark I hope to learn two things I did not know.”
Torre once said, “I learned more from George Kissell than anyone else,” and Torre is in the Hall of Fame as a player and a manager. It is no coincidence that Brent Strom was a pitching coach in the St. Louis organization and taught Jeff Luhnow the importance of the high fastball and spin rates, and when Skip Schumaker was named manager of the Miami Marlins, he said, “I learned not only from Tony La Russa and all the great coaches on his staff, but coaches in the Cardinals (organization) like José Oquendo. It was my baseball university.”
In many ways, the most remarkable organization of the last decade has been Cleveland. It’s a continuation of the legacy of those great Indians teams built by Bill Veeck, partly through his introduction of African-Americans like Larry Doby, Satchel Paige and Dave Pope to the American League (remember, that more backward league didn’t have an African-American rookie of the year until Tommy Agee in 1966, 19 years after Jackie Robinson won the award), and then carried on later under John Hart. Hart put together the bombers that made the 1995 and 1997 World Series, turned the club over to Mark Shapiro and he, Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff set about ignoring market demographics and targeting wins regardless of payroll size. And it has worked: beginning with the 2013 hiring of Terry Francona, the now-Guardians have won more games than any AL team but the Yankees, and got to within an extra-inning heartbreak of winning the franchise’s first World Series since 1948.
Antonetti’s hiring practice has long been to bring on interns “that are smarter than I am,” with examples like executives Mike Hazen, Carter Hawkins, David Stearns, Derek Falvey and Chernoff coming through the organization at various points. They have to make trades based on economics. They had to trade Francisco Lindor when he was at the point where he could ask for something north of $200 million. In the package they got Andrés Giménez, who in his second full season playing second base was fourth in all of baseball in Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Average, trailing Aaron Judge, Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt. José Ramírez was 14th in WAA, yet another year of sparkling production from an international signing who cost only $215,000. Rookie Steven Kwan was 22nd, a fourth-round draft choice. No other team had three players in the top 25 in that category. Then there was closer Emmanuel Clase, the best reliever in the American League, who was acquired in a trade for Corey Kluber.
So much of this starts with Francona. In the Guardians’ run to the playoffs, reliever Sam Hentges said, “In April, Terry was using in every possible situation to help me believe I belonged. In September, he was using me to help the team get into October.” In April 2013, his first full month with the Indians, Shapiro said, “He’s changed the entire culture here.” Every coach or team official is free to express his thoughts and argue individual thoughts. He has a pitching coach in Carl Willis who has coached five Cy Young winners. Cleveland has long had a strong organizational culture; Francona made it better, and his plaque is awaiting him in Cooperstown.
Shapiro, Chernoff, Francona’s protégé Kevin Cash and virtually everyone that has passed through the offices at the stadium long known as The Jake is open to contrarian ideas. In 2021, the Diamondbacks were 52-112, tied with the Orioles for the worst record in the game. Hazen, his wife Nicole gravely ill with brain cancer, was privately asked if there would be changes coming to his uniformed staff. “I put the team together, I’ll face it,” he replied.
“Our bullpen wasn’t good. It wasn’t Torey Lovullo’s fault. He didn’t mishandle it,” Hazen said, concluding that he was the one who had built that poor bullpen.
When it was time for a season-ending media conference summing up the season, Hazen insisted that he do it by himself.
“It’s my job to face the music,” he said.
As the Diamondbacks unveiled a number of outstanding young players in the second half of the 2022 season and 2023 began to appear to be the light at the end of the tunnel, Hazen said, “We will work hard to surround those kids with legitimate talent. You’ll hear no excuses from me. I don’t want to be blaming the manager or the coaches or be making excuses. I look at it like this — I don’t want people who work for us to make excuses or point fingers at other people. But I can’t expect that if I’m making excuses and blaming others. If I ask for hard work and honesty, I ask others to accept responsibility, then I’d better accept responsibility. If I can’t do that, maybe I shouldn’t have the job.”
That is how Hazen was raised. When a shoulder injury cut short his playing career after the 1999 season, his Princeton coach Scott Bradley said, “He’s the best leader I’ve ever had.” Chris Young, who is tasked with altering culture in Texas, played with Hazen for Bradley, himself a former longtime major league catcher. Young and Hazen may be two of the most honestly self-aware people one could ever hope to meet.
Hazen came up working with Shapiro and Antonetti. He then went to Boston under Theo Epstein, who from the time he became Red Sox general manager in 2003 said, “I think it’s important to associate with people who aren’t afraid to disagree with me. We all need to hear that.” A question he often asked as he grew as an executive was, “What am I missing?” In a dozen-year span, his Red Sox and Cubs teams ended respective “curses” that went back to the first initial years of the 20th century.
In the spring training after the Cubs won the World Series — in Cleveland, of course — Zobrist was asked if he could sum up the Cubs organization in 10 words or less. He did it in one word: collaborative.
Down the I-10 in Glendale two days later, Dodgers executive Andrew Friedman said he read that and said, “You could write a one-word column with Zobrist’s quote.” Now, one likely can find a couple of people in Glendale next spring who would like to see more common sense apply to how pitchers are handled in terms of the whole third-time-around-the-order business. But those who have worked with him attest that there is no one who believes in collaborative leadership more than Friedman — close to a dozen baseball people are involved with most Dodgers personnel decisions, and everyone gets their say, often to great effect.
For example, on Aug. 4, 2021, the Orioles released Evan Phillips. The Rays then signed him. They put him on waivers Aug. 17. The battery of Dodgers analytics specialists, who might outnumber the faculty at UCLA, liked his stuff and delivery. The scout that saw him in the American League thought his stuff would be best complemented with a cutter. The Dodgers claimed him, and while Mark Prior is one of the best pitching coaches in the game, his assistant, Connor McGuinness, is the cutter guy. Phillips is now an elite reliever.
Everyone has a say. GM Brandon Gomes, Josh Byrnes, scouting director Billy Gasparino, Galen Carr, Ismael Cruz, Dave Finley, Will Rhymes, Jeff McAvoy, Ron Porterfield (Utley may have been in London), Jeff Kingston and probably others were there for the Aug. 2 deadline meetings, held not in an office, but outside at Friedman’s house. It was like that when Friedman ran the Rays. His pro scouting staff traveled, evaluated and debated as a team, led by department boss Matt Arnold with McAvoy, Rocco Baldelli and Carlos Rodriguez. Friedman’s assistants were Erik Neander, Chaim Bloom and James Click.
Arnold went to work in Milwaukee, and when Stearns stepped down, he became the director of baseball operations. The Brewers are, like the Guardians, Marlins, Royals, Reds, Pirates and A’s, forced to live and sometimes die within a budget, although Bud Selig left a marvelous ballpark and the city is a great baseball town. “(Owner Mark Attanasio) tries to make us competitive every year,” says Arnold. The last six seasons, they have had winning records in every season but 2020, the 60-game anomaly, and in this stretch have won more games than the Red Sox or Cardinals. They finished first twice. Even in 2022, they finished only one game behind the Phillies.
They have a rash of talented young outfielders coming, with Estevan Ruiz from the Padres (in the Josh Hader trade), Joey Wiemer, Garrett Mitchell and 2021 first-round draft choice Sal Frelick. Scouts who watched Yeehaw Jun for years knew he was the Massachusetts High School Player of the Year in football, baseball and hockey, and most of them believed his best position is shortstop. In the spring, Frelick will get a chance to hit leadoff and play second base. By the end of the season, teenage phenom Jackson Chourio could be in the outfield. “The fans here are special,” says Arnold. “When we played the Cubs in the (2018) tiebreaker playoff, I rode the train from Milwaukee and it was crazy — the fans were singing, everyone was so excited … It was so great.” The fact that the Cubs are the one large market team in the NL Central and St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are a cheap, short flight away makes it a regional league, the way the Atlantic Coast Conference was at one time.
No one can say who makes for a natural rival for the Marlins, unless the interleague series with the Rays is a simple trip through Yeehaw Junction with a home-and-away guarantee of available tickets. But after years of ownership uncertainty, Kim Ng has brought order to the organization. Jeffery Loria was known to do exceptionally kind things for people, but he could do goofy things too, like come down to the team suite at the winter meetings excited that he’d acquired Dan Straily from Cincinnati for Luis Castillo. Unfortunately, Derek Jeter was not given more power in baseball operations. He picked his former Yankee hitting coach, Gary Denbo, who brought with him young analytics theorists who ridiculed the deals for Sandy Alcántara, Zac Gallen and Pablo López. They didn’t care enough about a catcher named J.T. Realmuto that Don Mattingly singled out as a minor leaguer. Denbo is gone. Mattingly had had enough, and Ng hired Skip Schumaker — who was on the radar of several teams — to manage, retained Mel Stottlemyre as pitching coach and brought in Oz Ocampo as an assistant general manager.
What Mike Elias and the Orioles have built with their young position players is one of the best stories of the 2022 season. They have a culture guarantee in Adley Rutschman. They have Gunnar Henderson and Jackson Holliday and prospects who can fill Camden Yards for a decade, depending on ownership. In a very competitive division, they are serious competition. Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer still live there, Cal Ripken should be there. Sig Mejdal is there, as he was in the building of the Astros. Mejdal has ideas. When he was with the Astros, this man from the aerospace industry spent an entire New York-Penn League season in uniform, coaching to learn what young players go through at the bottom of the development pyramid. Obviously, he is a leader.
Then there is Bloom and the Red Sox. Owners John Henry and Tom Werner don’t do public talks. Red Sox president Sam Kennedy speaks for ownership, and he is optimistic. Right now, Alex Cora is optimistic. And it’s early to speculate about putting Bloom, in his fourth season, on a bus driven by Franchy Cordero. Collaboration is communication between a general manager and players, between a general manager and manager, and a general manager and all the personnel from the major-league bench coach to the Gulf Coast League pitching coach.
When Bloom took over, he knew that Henry had decided they were not going to give Mookie Betts a $300 million contract and thus had to be traded. They did not get an All-Star-level player in return; Alex Verdugo is a left fielder in a ballpark that requires right-field defense, in six seasons his 8.5 WAR isn’t left-field production and his Red Sox three-season OPS+ is 102. He is an average major-league player. Andrew Benintendi for Cordero was … no. This past season, they signed Trevor Story to a $144 million contract despite elbow questions; on July 2 the Red Sox were leading for wild-card position, but when Bogaerts left a July 1 game at Wrigley Field, Story did not move over to short to replace Bogaerts. Instead Christian Arroyo, a second baseman, took over at short. The Sox returned to Fenway Park on July 4 in second place, and didn’t strike hard at the deadline as they slowly clinched last. When Bloom chose to largely stop sending scouts to Triple A or the major leagues, there were hard feelings in the underbelly of baseball operations, and some of Bloom’s front-office hires created some internal division.
Now, the Red Sox finished last, which is a divisive place. While Dombrowski’s 2018 team won it all, he had to trade many young prospects to win as Henry and Werner asked, and Bloom didn’t have a lot of fungible prospects in the pipeline. We have never been told who made the contract offer to Bogaerts earlier this year, which was less than what they gave Story and guaranteed Bogaerts would hit the free-agent market with Scott Boras working for him. Many general managers maintain that the spring Bogaerts offer made it clear whoever made it didn’t want Bogaerts back.
But that’s speculation. Those who know Henry know he really cares about the Red Sox. “John and Tom both really care,” says Kennedy. “They are extremely passionate. They always finance whatever baseball ops needs. We want to get this right, and John and Tom will do whatever is necessary to do so. If there are issues that haven’t been addressed, we have to have everyone in the organization communicating with one another. Texts and Zoom aren’t real ways to communicate. If we need to have everyone come in together and participate, hey, communication is a key to success. If we need to better our collaboration we will. I think we already are doing that. I feel good about where we’re going after this disappointing season.”
One of Bloom’s trusted front office leaders says, “Our goal is to study the Dodgers.” Mookie Betts ain’t walking back through the Jersey Street door. But they can get back to what drove that 2008 team to 108 regular season wins, a team that took the field in Game 5 with six of its eight position players developed within the organization, bolstered by a starting pitcher and designated hitter signed as top-of-the-market free agents. It isn’t Tampa. It’s Boston, where the Red Sox won the very first World Series, the Fenway Sports Group has been valued at $5.8 billion and has been rumored to be interested in buying the Washington Commanders, who nearly 90 years ago were moved from Boston to Washington by a group that included Samuel (Bo) Bregman, whose great-grandson was the Astros third baseman when they earned Dusty Baker his first managerial ring, and eliminated the Red Sox the year before when they were two games from the World Series.
(Top photo of Baker: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)
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