SBJ/November 7 - 13, 2005/Other News
Baseball Calls Up Young Guns
Published November 7, 2005
A look at some under-30 senior executives around baseball
Birthdate: May 20, 1976
Birthdate: Nov. 13, 1976
Birthdate: Aug. 24, 1977
Birthdate: Oct. 16, 1976
Yet, it will be Hunsicker who will be reporting to Friedman, and on up the line to Matt Silverman, Tampa Bay’s 29-year-old team president, as part of a new front-office structure announced last week.
The ascendancy of Friedman and Silverman highlights a front-office youth movement that shows no signs of stopping, even amid last week’s high-profile departures of 31-year-old Boston Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein and Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Paul DePodesta, 32.
Rather, the trend is only accelerating and deepening as MLB teams in growing numbers are turning over key parts of team operations to executives who have yet to hit their 30th birthdays, and whose backgrounds are not in baseball but in business.
In Texas, Rangers owner Tom Hicks has entrusted his club to 28-year-old general manager Jon Daniels. And in Boston, 29-year-old Peter Woodfork, who played a key role in last year’s championship team as director of baseball operations, is weighing his options after Epstein’s departure and could be promoted. If Woodfork leaves the Red Sox, he will easily be in high demand around the league.
If Epstein, who three years ago became the youngest GM in history at the age of 28 and helped end an 86-year title drought, cracked opened the door of baseball’s front-office youth movement, the latest crop of hires is bursting it open.
“I think it’s pretty clear that Theo helped open the minds of owners and fans that a young executive can work in this game and do the job at a high level,” Silverman said. “My age is still a factor in terms of perceptions, meeting people for the first time. But once I get a chance to talk to someone, I think that issue fades away very quickly.”
What makes the latest youth-driven hires even more striking is that most of them do not have a long track record within baseball such as Epstein, who began his career as an 18-year-old intern with the Baltimore Orioles and moved on to the San Diego Padres before landing in Boston. Silverman, Friedman and Daniels each came from the world of business and Wall Street finance, not at all planning for a career in baseball when they were in college.
But as MLB’s economic fortunes continue to rise sharply and each team faces rising competition for the entertainment dollar, the rush to youth represents a search for fresh ideas and a strong intellectual background in management and business development.
“I’ve developed relationships around the game I don’t believe are based on or dependent on age,” Daniels said. “There’s still a lot of a continuity around this organization. But I do think I bring some strengths in terms of asking the right questions of people, bringing a very high energy level.”
The move also shows baseball’s continued reliance on the Ivy League, as Woodfork and Silverman graduated from Harvard and Daniels from Cornell. Epstein graduated from Yale and DePodesta from Harvard.
“I have all the confidence in the world in these guys,” said Devil Rays owner Stuart Sternberg of Silverman and Friedman. “If I didn’t, they wouldn’t have jobs with me. It’s that simple. But they’re very sharp, immensely talented, and have a clear vision of what we need to do to improve this franchise.”
The youth movement seems exclusive to the front offices of Major League Baseball, and has not filtered into the NFL, NBA or NHL. However, it is not universally embraced within MLB, a sport that in many corners still puts a premium on experience and contacts. Despite seeing both Epstein and DePodesta on the open market, the Philadelphia Phillies last week filled their general manager post by hiring veteran baseball man Pat Gillick, who harrumphed, “I thought I was pretty smart when I was 32, too. But there’s also a lot more I’ve experienced in the last 30 years or so. If some teams want to hire and entrust their club to young people, that’s their prerogative.”
Said Houston Astros general manager Tim Purpura, who has been in baseball for the last 15 years, “I don’t know the background of these young guys, but as for me, I still believe that experience in this game is the greatest teacher you can have. I’m very thankful for my years in this game and what I’ve learned.”
Some whispers among baseball insiders are even more strident, suggesting the young executives are little more than puppets for their owners or powerless bean counters for their field managers. It’s a charge that’s strongly denied.
“I really think Jon’s put all that talk to bed. In terms of the baseball operations, Jon’s the boss, not [field manager] Buck [Showalter]. There can only be one boss, and Jon’s it,” said Hicks, who at 28 was running a venture capital organization and preparing his first leveraged buyout. “I’ve watched Jon the last 14 months very closely, and he’s really impressed me. He holds a very thorough knowledge of the game and has a maturity and ability beyond his years.”
“I think it’s pretty clear that Theo [Epstein, above]
“Theo was really the only comparable I knew on that,” Hicks said. “You really can’t compare Jon that way to a John Hart.”
Dave Dombrowski, Detroit Tigers president, was perhaps baseball’s first high-profile wunderkind of the front office, taking the general manager reins of the Montreal Expos in 1988 at the age of 31. He doesn’t foresee a mad rush toward more young hires, but praised the intellect of the recent hires.
“There are a lot of parallels to corporate America that teams are looking for, being able to lead people and being able to lead a process,” Dombrowski said. “That’s obviously the background of a lot of these new guys. We’ll have to see how much that fully correlates to this industry. It will be important for these guys to find a mentor and continue to work on their weaknesses.”