Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Ego-Driven GMs

  • It's all about me-me-me-me-me-me!!!!!

So what do you do when the person who's supposedly the boss of an enterprise worth hundreds of millions (sometimes even billions) of dollars is more interested in his own image and perception than maximizing the functionality of your company? Do you step in and let him know that you're onto him? That you know what he's doing? And why he's doing it?

Do you "meddle"? Put yourself on the firing line as the epitome of all that is said to be wrong with the wealthy fat-cats having the ability to buy and sell sports teams as playthings because they grew bored with traveling and partying or behind the scenes machinations?

I watch many of the new-age general managers operate and it's clear to me that they have an agenda; a goal to be right doing it "their" way; garnering headlines; receiving credit; being the man out in front. Books will be written; accolades will be doled; love will be professed; and a lucrative side career as a corporate speaker who found a better way will be forged.

Is this in the best interests of the current employer? And is said current employer savvy and gutsy enough to tell his employee to cease and desist with his ego-driven and selfish scheme to aggrandize himself?

With the way the Internet; 24-hour sports talk; ESPN; and all kinds of information is disseminated at the click of a mouse and press of a button, it was obvious as to the inevitability of the evolution of a sports GM from a rumpled middleman who was barely seen or heard, to a smooth-talking and charismatic power broker who would fit in just as neatly at a Fortune 500 company and could speak the language of a businessman rather than that of a hard-boiled baseball man. Poised and polished with an ornate vocabulary and gleaming suits, the new age GM is ready for prime-time away from the trenches.

But what about in the trenches?

Are his interests coinciding with that of the organization and is the smoothness transparent enough for ownership to see it and step in when the conflict of interest is so abundantly clear? The Moneyball narrative catapulted Billy Beane into the mainstream public as the epitome of the combination of deftness in the boardroom and brilliance in the realm of baseball.

The problem----in retrospect and reality----has been that not even Billy Beane is the "Billy Beane" from the book. A writer selling a book took what was a nice little story of a smart (though decidedly not a genius), opportunistic and relatively young organizational boss, Beane, and transformed it into a bastardization of tenets that, taken by themselves, cannot possibly work in the building of a successful organization.

Michael Lewis's characterization of baseball being run by the MIT, Harvard and Stanford graduates who'd be more at home at a Star Trek convention than they would at a group bull session of former players that had taken the long road to front office positions came to pass----and has been a disaster (see the Dodgers tenure of Paul DePodesta for anecdotal and practical evidence of this fact).

So what does this have to do with today's GMs? The new age people running big market clubs?

Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein, Ruben Amaro Jr.; Jack Zduriencik; Beane; Josh Byrnes; and Andrew Friedman are examples of this phenomenon. The media is creating a characterization that is unreachable and based on perception rather than what's best for their respective clubs. There's no questioning the baseball smarts of the above-mentioned executives; but that doesn't mean they're "geniuses"; nor does it mean that their own self-interests are not interfering with their work.

Does anyone doubt that Cashman and Epstein love to hear their own voices and be continually credited for said "intelligence" even when they have betrayed the principles to which they have professed fealty?

In the crisis-a-day world of the information age, a bad week, month or year generally results in the call for someone's job. It's the era of "do something" even if the original decision may have made some semblance of sense and plainly and simply didn't work. Because the media is no permeated with the same agenda-driven people who want to see their "own" placed into positions of power (again, see DePodesta and his defenders), there's no possible way to get an accurate and aboveboard gauge on the job someone's doing.

Did Cashman and Epstein adhere to their well-thought-out "plans" at crunch time?

As the Red Sox world came apart in 2003 with the horrific decision to try a "closer-by-committee" ended with an ALCS loss to the Yankees, they sacrificed the manager they didn't want anyway, Grady Little and altered the strategy to get themselves a closer, Keith Foulke, that very winter. In 2006, the Red Sox stumbled even worse as they sat by and watched the Yankees blow past them and, rather than stay the course. they flung money at their problems. There's nothing wrong with that and it worked, but to maintain this idea that it was all part of some grand plot known only to those with this innate knowledge of baseball and organization is twisting the truth for public consumption.

Cashman took control of the entire Yankee operation with the physical fade of George Steinbrenner and pointed the Yankees in a similar direction as that of the Red Sox in building through the farm system; and emulated the Athletics with the ancillary benefit of being the "man". Cashman, with the persona of a nebbish, has about as large an ego as you'll find in baseball; you have to have a certain amount of that to survive in New York and, much like spending money to win, there's nothing wrong with it as long as it's not clouded by subterfuge of "the best interests of the organization".

Joe Torre was shoved out the door to cement Cashman's power more than any other reason. The last thing a GM operating under the auspices of "me-me-me" needs is a manager who has the cachet to resist and push back at the edicts from above. After the missed playoff season of 2008, how quickly did the homegrown ideal go flying out the window as money served its function in filling the Yankees holes and won them the heretofore elusive championship.

The lusty media is questioning Beane with greater frequency; the Red Sox plan for pitching and defense replacing power is exploding in their faces; the Yankees maneuvers from the past off-season have all failed miserably; the Mariners are a fiery train crash; the Phillies have a multitude of questions that have to be answered----and to answer them, GM Ruben Amaro Jr is faced with the choice of doing a 180 on his stated plan from the winter or running the risk of his team being bounced from the playoffs because of a shortfall in pitching that could've been avoided had they kept Cliff Lee.

The whole idea of trading The Stone Cold Killer, Lee, to the Mariners while simultaneously acquiring Roy Halladay along with a massive chunk of the Phillies farm system was to maintain the myth of not gutting the farm system; this scheme was contingent on Brad Lidge being healthy; on getting continued development from J.A. Happ; and overall health and performance from the pieces that helped them win the World Series in 2008 and the NL pennant in 2009.

But what do they do now that Lidge is again on the disabled list with elbow issues? With Happ hurt? And with a shortness on the pitching staff that is going to need to be addressed barring the exceedingly unlikely occurrence that Jose Contreras can mentally handle closing?

These blueprints with the idea that a veteran team will be able to win and maintain prospects are a pipe dream that have more to do with the executive's out of control and bloated self-image than what the club currently needs. The Phillies have signed their veterans to massive contracts, are not going to be able to keep Jayson Werth after the season with the clear thought in their mind's eye that one of their remaining prospects----Domonic Brown----will be able to replace him or they can fill the hole more cheaply. (Brown's destroying the ball in Double A).

But what if they find themselves desperately needing immediate help to try and win another pennant or World Series? Will Amaro cling to the same notion that led him to shun the thought of combining Lee with Halladay to maintain the farm system? How much is Amaro's ego involved in this? And what will the Phillies veterans think as they see the immediate future and know that they'll need outside help to win, but the organizational boss is more interested in himself than making the move to help the team now?

Is it about organizational help for now and the future? Or is it for the GM himself?

I don't want my GM to be interested in anything other than the club and what's best for the stated goal, but that's become more prevalent in the age of Moneyball and the GM as a star unto himself. It's a foundation of lies and their actions belie how teams should be handled. We're seeing the end result of this first class ticket to nowhere.

  • Speaking of GMs...

Cubs GM Jim Hendry gave manager Lou Piniella the dreaded "vote of confidence" yesterday----ESPN Story.

Obviously, this is taken out of context. Presumably, Hendry was asked about the manager and coaching staff of the struggling Cubs and answered the question with a scoffing, "Piniella's not going anywhere" type of response. But the idea itself of Piniella being fired is laughable. If anyone's in trouble with the Cubs, it's Hendry. As I said yesterday regarding Mets GM Omar Minaya, it's suicide to fire the GM in the middle of the season. Add in that the Cubs have the talent to right the ship and that the National League is so horrific that they have no reason to freak out now, and neither Hendry nor Piniella are going anywhere in the near future.

That said, I can definitely see Piniella throwing his hands up in the air in a similar fashion as did Whitey Herzog when he resigned as the Cardinals manager in 1990 saying he couldn't get through to the players anymore; that he felt as if he couldn't maximize them. Herzog walked away and didn't return to managing. I don't know if Piniella could stay away if he did leave the Cubs, but he'd resign before the Cubs fire him.

The Cubs have enough good players to hang around the Wild Card race in a weak league if they don't panic and play better.

  • Viewer Mail 5.18.2010:

Jane Heller at Confessions of a She-Fan writes RE Omar Minaya:

That was quite a comprehensive analysis, Prince! I learned a lot. Seems to me that Manuel would be the first to go before ownership even considered cutting Omar loose.

I have absolutely no problem with people calling for a change in the Mets managerial hierarchy from top to bottom; it's fine. But no one comes up with a solution other than "fire them all".

Okay. Fire them. And do what? Who's taking over? What's the strategy going to be? A housecleaning? A re-tooling? No one has an answer. It's transitory anger designed to "do something" but no one defines what that "something" is.

Jennifer at The Simple Dish writes RE the Mets:

I had to read this a few times to really process this.
If the fans are calling for Omar's head, wouldn't they also be calling for Manuel's as well? Omar puts the team together, yes but Manuel makes the field level decisions. So logically, if Manuel makes the bad game decisions wouldn't he be on the chopping block?

I also think the Mets get an unfair deal being in the same city as the Yankees; it's almost like there's this palpable pressure for the Mets to spend the same amount to make the same moves as the Yankees. Watching local CT sports coverage, there's always this undertone of "just do what NYY does."

People want someone fired and Jerry Manuel goes before Minaya does. Easily. There are things for which to blame Manuel, but these are the players he has and the lineup is strikeout-laden and streaky. I'm not a fan of many of his moves and wouldn't cry if they made a change to Bob Melvin and would celebrate if they brought Bobby Valentine back.

The Yankees filled their holes after the 2008 season by tossing money at the best available players; the Mets did the best they could this past winter by getting Jason Bay out of a weak free agent class, but didn't have the variety of options and the positional openings to plug the players into.

They should've signed Joel Pineiro and didn't.

The Yankees had an opportunity to get the C.C. Sabathias and Mark Teixeiras and did it. The Mets are straddling the line of trying to contend and not continue to gut the farm system as they have in the past and spending money is the only way to do that; they were just unlucky in what was there this past winter to fill those holes.

PairFace writes RE the Phillies and Mets:

Hey Paul - just thought I'd check in and rile you up a bit.

You talk about the Phils obsession with the Mets...what about your obsession with Ruben Amaro??? You seem to go out of your way, on a weekly basis, to take a shot at him. You didn't like the Cliff Lee trade. OK...we get it already. Time to move on.

As for the Mets, what needs to be said, other than I told you so??? Frenchy came out Spring Training vowing to be more selective at the plate. That lasted...about a week. Perez is so far gone at this point, it will be hard to ever get him back. Perhaps he could go the Rick Ankiel route: Go to the minors, get on the juice for a few cycles, and come back as a power-hitting corner OFer.

As for the "arrogant" Phils, just another day. I think you need to give this group of players some respect, regardless of where they happen to play. Injuries (more than Los Mets this year), personal slumps, bullpen issues....they don't care. They play right through it. They have no closer at the moment, Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick are at the back of their rotation, and they spent the weekend with Paul Hoover and Wilson Valdez in their lineup.

The Phils are clearly the class of the East, and the rest of the NL for that matter. I think you would be better served recognizing this, rather than chiding Ruben Amaro weekly for deals he did or didn't make. If you're looking for a GM to hang out to dry, you could start in Queens.

Riling me up is all but impossible as I'm almost entirely unflappable.

Being the best team in the National League now is something similar to declaring oneself the King of the World following a catastrophic meteorite strike. The whole league is atrocious.

When have I ever disrespected the Phillies? I state fact, plain and simple; and answer me one question about Amaro's deals: Would you rather have Cliff Lee or Philippe Aumont?

The Phillies veterans have already stated their bewilderment at that trade. Amaro's tenure is an open question and his ego is involved in making these deals. My questioning the Lee trade isn't based on partisan politics, but a legitimate confusion regarding strategy in what would've been best for the team now. Where am I hanging him out to dry? I don't think the guy should be fired, I don't agree with his plan; including that ridiculous Ryan Howard contract.

Giving them credit for their attributes doesn't obscure the truth regarding their reputation throughout the league; the two can exist and be elucidated side-by-side. The rest of baseball hates them. There was a similar phenomenon with the Mets in 2006-2007 and, more notably, in 1986; they didn't care and nor should the Phillies. Nobody likes the Red Sox or Yankees either. Who cares? Dominant teams dominate; but the Phillies are a dominant team in a staggering division and rancid league. That's not their fault; it just "is". I defended them for the allegations of "cheating" as well; it's part of the game and if they get away with it, I tip my hat.

It should be noted that they've also had a relatively weak schedule early this season beating up on the Astros; Brewers; Pirates; Mets and Braves.

With Jeff Francoeur, I'm not sure what everyone expected. Did the string of good play last year and early season patience mean that he'd been "cured" of what got him bounced from the Braves and a talent that vast being made available to the Mets in the first place? There were going to be hiccups with his reinvention and if the Mets and fans didn't have the stomach for him to regress, they shouldn't have brought him here to start with.

And Perez? He's here; he's getting paid; I'm trying to come up with solutions to get something out of him rather than toss him out the window as an expensive sunk cost. Stranger things have happened than a pitcher like Perez finding some use out of the bullpen or being salvaged somehow.

You have to leave your website address if you want me to link it. I'm not searching for it.

My book is still available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and Noble.com. It's available for download as an E-book here.

I'm willing to get my hands dirty.

Are you?


She-Fan said...

Honestly, I don't pay a lot of attention to GMs in the sense that they're behind the scenes and I'm more interested in what's happening on the field day to day. No question they're responsible for who's on the field, but it's the players who have to perform.

Jeff said...

I'm with Jane, but I will say this: to be a good GM I think one is required to have a bit of ego-driven swagger. It's the glamor position. Ya gotta look the part. Right?

the Brooklyn Trolley Blogger said...

I think Front Offices are just as important as players on the field. I think this post makes a strong case for Team Presidents. In most cases where there is a direct connect between owner and GM, things usually don't work out for them. When owners delegate to Team Presidents, and he in turn coalesces with his GM...I think there-in lies just one key in success. The best example I can use to describe what I mean is when MLB had two League Presidents and a Commissioner. I thought Baseball was better for having Presidents. Today we are at the mercy of Selig alone. And that's how I feel Presidents have a place versus a homogenized executive/GM being the owner's gopher.
Good post! Sorry for putting the Mets on blast on your page the other day.

PairFace said...

You asked me if I would prefer Cliff Lee or Phillip Aumont. But that's not really the proper question. The real question is do I prefer Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay. Right now, that's a tough call.

The deal that brought Halladay to the Phils was put in motion by Lee and his agent. According to most reliable sources, Amaro approached Lee about his situation, and if he would be open to signing an extension. His agent (allegedly) indicated that he was going to free agency if the extensiion was anything less than 6 years. Halladay was willing to sign for 4.

Now the Phils could have kept Lee for this year, and brought Halladay in for an all-or-nothing 2010 season. Amaro is under tighter financial constraints than Minaya or Cashman. There was no way that Lee was staying beyond this year, so they moved him for prospects. maybe that's a good call...maybe it's not. I guess that depends on what Aumont turns into. But with the injuries the Phils have had so far, it may turn out to be a good thing that Amaro has some prospects to deal before the deadline.

I don't maintain my own website, but my work can be found at phillysportscast.com

Jennifer said...

Commenting on the GM that I know best, Theo Epstein is a nice enough guy and he is overall a good GM but his ego may trump Cashman's. Everything he does, every move he makes, every carefully crafted statement is ego driven and under the assumption that his fan base, you know us New Englanders that pay the ticket prices and are the suffering fans by birthright, would not know or understand baseball without him there to push his little strategies ad nauseam. It must be working because a lot of fans cannot grasp the fact that pitching isn't working (4 out 5 with ERAs over 3.0) and our defense struggles whether we're at Fenway or not. And our offense will get to the plate and look like they cannot even hit water if they fell out of a canoe.

Yet the majority of fans seem to not be concerned because this is what "Theo decided and it's up to the players to perform." Out of the post season by Memorial Day is a HIGH possibility and yet all you hear is "Fenway Faithful," "in Theo we trust" and my favorite, "Believe." I'm all for a team through thick and thin but a GM's plan and ego should not interfere with a fan's ability to speak critically about a plan that is simply not working and is resulting in a weak 4th place showing. No need to remind me that we were swept by the Orioles, either.